I know several people who want desperately to volunteer. These are my friends. They’re smart, capable people, but they don’t have the capital to pay large program fees for a few weeks of service. My best friend, Rebecca, is a farmer. She runs her own organic farm in the middle of the city, giving fresh, free food to her neighbors. She lives in a low-income neighborhood, a place where it isn’t easy to find fresh produce. Every day she is improving the lives of her neighbors. She’s keeping children healthy. She’s making her street more beautiful with her incredible sunflowers and climbing vines. And yet, financially, she’s in a tough place. I look at her and I think any program would be so lucky to have her. She embodies the volunteering spirit that is at the heart of so many organizations. Still, she doesn’t go because she doesn’t have the money. She’d rather keep giving her food away for free than charge her poor neighbors so that she can travel to help other equally needy people, someplace else.
This is why I was so excited to find Help Exchange. Help Exchange (HelpX for short) is one of the Internet’s best-kept volunteering secrets. It’s a database of free volunteering opportunities all over the world. Many of the opportunities are in informal settings, on farms and in communities. HelpX cuts out the middleman, bringing volunteers and people who need a hand together. The arrangements vary but most involve about four hours of work/day in exchange for food and lodging. HelpX has listings for placements in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, and the US. Volunteers are still responsible for airfare, but once they get where they’re going, they’re taken care of.
There are some disadvantages to the HelpX model. Without an organization overseeing operations, volunteers are on their own. They must navigate cultural interactions, negotiate the terms of their service, and manage their own time. If they have a problem, it’s up to them to sort it out. This isn’t unlike any solo travel experience. Still, for many volunteers, traveling without a safety net isn’t appealing. Those people are well served by the traditional volunteer organization. But for people like my friend Rebecca, people who want to travel the world to help others but can’t afford the traditional experience, HelpX is the perfect solution. There are even some opportunities for families with small children. Here are some great tips for a successful HelpX experience. Happy travels!